The Royal Academy in London is currently showing an exhibition entitled Matisse in the Studio (5th August-12th November 2017) which explores Henri Matisse’s relationship with a collection of objects he used in his paintings. The actual objects are on display alongside works they feature in. There has been mixed critical response to the exhibition, some critics are taken by the idea, for example, one likens a large Spanish vase to “a tough Andalusian woman”. Others believe that Matisse’s artistry has been swallowed up by bric-a-brac, wondering unfairly why in 1942 he was more interested in a Venetian chair than he was in the war going on around him. This forgets the fact that during this time Matisse was recovering from a serious illness, the critic does have a point, however, when they suggest that the theme explored “is at best a footnote in the history of art”.
During the time of his recovery Matisse made the acquaintance of a young woman called Monique Bourgeois who became his nurse. They became close friends, it was this genuine friendship that was the catalyst for the creation of the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence located in a small town in southern France. Matisse stayed in the town while he convalesced, it is where he and Monique’s paths crossed over a number of years. Their friendship was tested when Monique became a nun much to the disappointment of Matisse, he was not a religious man and had misgivings about Monique’s decision. However, their friendship was strong enough so when Sister Jacques Marie (as she became known) was staying across the street from him in a Dominican rest home they continued to see one another.
A moving film directed by Barbara Freer shows Sister Jacques Marie in her later years discussing her relationship with Matisse and recounting how the chapel came to be built. She reveals that she showed the artist a small sketch she had designed to one day hopefully become a stained glass window in a much needed chapel, at the time they were using an old garage. This idea stayed with Matisse and became the nucleus for the creation of the chapel which would be designed entirely by him. The project was not without controversy with objections coming from some of those inside the church, Matisse was not considered a suitable choice to create a holy building, he was a non-believer and his art was suspect in their eyes. Nevertheless, the Chapelle du Rosaire was consecrated in 1951, according to Matisse it was a “shared project” between himself and Sister Jacques Marie. Visiting the chapel one wonders, therefore, why Sister Jacques Marie’s window was never included, Matisse has been quoted as saying that the chapel had “imperfections”, perhaps this is one of them? However, it is clear that Matisse broke new ground in his art in the chapel. He designed stained glass windows, three minimal murals and an altar, he used the colour reflected in the glass from the windows to create coloured patterns of light on the plain white tiled walls. It has been described as a project in which art and faith connect and there is no doubt that, even if not driven by religious piety, it was a labour of love by Matisse. The artist has declared the chapel to be his masterpiece and there seems no reason to disagree.
This brings me back to the exhibition at the RA which could be viewed as misleading regarding what Matisse left behind in terms of an art historical legacy. As already stated, Matisse considered the chapel as his masterpiece, therefore, in the artist’s opinion, this was his best work. It would seem that with the chapel in Vence Matisse started anew from a different standpoint, he seems to have obliterated all previous desire to depict objects, this is a work devoid of materialist concerns, this is a spiritual leap into a world without extraneous things. That is why the RA exhibition seems unnecessary, by lionising “mere props” with curatorial zeal they are making something out of nothing. Matisse it would seem, at the end of his life, wanted to keep things simple so why distort art historical principles by drawing attention to the objectified world he seemed to want to leave behind, how can you make a blockbuster exhibition out of a footnote in art history?